On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

Posted in Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on October 26, 2016 by telescoper

This very famous and very wonderful sonnet, considered the highlight of Keats’s first volume of poetry, was written on this day in October 1816 and is thus exactly 200 years old.  It was originally a gift for his friend, Charles Cowden Clarke. The two men had spent an evening reading George Chapman’s superb 17th century translation of the Iliad and Odyssey. Here is the original hand-written version (which I got here)


And here’s a more legible version:

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific–and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise–
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

A Non-accelerating Universe?

Posted in Astrohype, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 26, 2016 by telescoper

There’s been quite a lot of reaction on the interwebs over the last few days much of it very misleading; here’s a sensible account) to a paper by Nielsen, Guffanti and Sarkar which has just been published online in Scientific Reports, an offshoot of Nature. I think the above link should take you an “open access” version of the paper but if it doesn’t you can find the arXiv version here. I haven’t cross-checked the two versions so the arXiv one may differ slightly.

Anyway, here is the abstract:

The ‘standard’ model of cosmology is founded on the basis that the expansion rate of the universe is accelerating at present — as was inferred originally from the Hubble diagram of Type Ia supernovae. There exists now a much bigger database of supernovae so we can perform rigorous statistical tests to check whether these ‘standardisable candles’ indeed indicate cosmic acceleration. Taking account of the empirical procedure by which corrections are made to their absolute magnitudes to allow for the varying shape of the light curve and extinction by dust, we find, rather surprisingly, that the data are still quite consistent with a constant rate of expansion.

Obviously I haven’t been able to repeat the statistical analysis but I’ve skimmed over what they’ve done and as far as I can tell it looks a fairly sensible piece of work. Here is the telling plot (from the Nature version)  in terms of the dark energy (y-axis) and matter (x-axis) density parameters:


Models shown in this plane by a line have the correct balance between Ωm, and ΩΛ to cancel out the decelerating effect of the former against the accelerating effect of the latter (a special case is the origin on the plot, which is called the Milne model and represents an entirely empty universe). The contours show “1, 2 and 3σ” contours, regarding all other parameters as nuisance parameters. It is true that the line of no acceleration does go inside the 3σcontour so in that sense is not entirely inconsistent with the data. On the other hand, the “best fit” (which is at the point Ωm=0.341, ΩΛ=0.569) does represent an accelerating universe.

I am not all that surprised by this result, actually. I’ve always felt that taken on its own the evidence for cosmic acceleration from supernovae alone was not compelling. However, when it is combined with other measurements (particularly of the cosmic microwave background and large-scale structure) which are sensitive to other aspects of the cosmological space-time geometry, the agreement is extremely convincing and has established a standard “concordance” cosmology. The CMB, for example, is particularly sensitive to spatial curvature which, measurements tells us, must be close to zero. The Milne model, on the other hand, has a large (negative) spatial curvature entirely excluded by CMB observations. Curvature is regarded as a “nuisance parameter” in the above diagram.

I think this paper is a worthwhile exercise. Subir Sarkar (one of the authors) in particular has devoted a lot of energy to questioning the standard ΛCDM model which far too many others accept unquestioningly. That’s a noble thing to do, and it is an essential part of the scientific method, but this paper only looks at one part of an interlocking picture. The strongest evidence comes from the cosmic microwave background and despite this reanalysis I feel the supernovae measurements still provide a powerful corroboration of the standard cosmology.

Let me add, however, that the supernovae measurements do not directly measure cosmic acceleration. If one tries to account for them with a model based on Einstein’s general relativity and the assumption that the Universe is on large-scales is homogeneous and isotropic and with certain kinds of matter and energy then the observations do imply a universe that accelerates. Any or all of those assumptions may be violated (though some possibilities are quite heavily constrained). In short we could, at least in principle, simply be interpreting these measurements within the wrong framework, and statistics can’t help us with that!

You Spin Me Right Round

Posted in Biographical, Music with tags on October 25, 2016 by telescoper

News yesterday of the death, at the age of 57, of Pete Burns reminded me of this number from 1985 by Dead or Alive. This seemed to be playing every time I went to a club in those days and is thus a kind of theme song for happy times, now lost forever.

R.I.P. Pete Burns (1959-2016)

Weekend Postscript

Posted in Uncategorized on October 24, 2016 by telescoper

The post I wrote on Saturday about the case of Bode versus Mundell had attracted a lot of attention on this blog over the past few days, and has led to a number of people sending me private messages and emails, mainly about wider aspects of the case.

Most of these have expressed thanks for bringing this matter to the attention of the astronomy community. Others have been extremely critical of my post. The rest have contents that I cannot possibly disclose here. Or anywhere else.

For the record I have no regrets whatsoever about writing what I did. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the libel action it seems to me that the publicity arising from its failure has revealed an apparent failure of process, in that a charge of sexual harassment was raised but never properly resolved.

After much thought I have decided not to accept the invitation by Dr Chris Simpson to discuss the harassment case in person via Skype. There are two main  reasons for this.

One is that I do not feel it would be appropriate to get only one side of the story and am clearly unable to talk to whoever made the complaint to see the other side. Their identity is rightly not in the public domain. In other words it is precisely in the interest of balance that I am not going to be drawn into further discussion of the original harassment allegations with one of the parties to the case and not the other(s).

The other reason is that the most important point I wanted to make in my post was not about whether the harassment complaint would or would not have been upheld (which was not an in issue in the court case either) but that the investigation ended before a resolution could be reached one way or the other. Lessons need to be learnt if we are to reach a situation in which bona fide complainants have sufficient confidence in the process to make it worthwhile coming forward.

The Case of Bode versus Mundell

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on October 22, 2016 by telescoper

Getting ready to come in and help with today’s Undergraduate Open Day today at Cardiff University, I checked Twitter this morning and found a number of tweets about a shocking news story that I feel obliged to comment on.  The astronomy community in the United Kingdom is fairly small and relatively close-knit, which makes this case especially troubling, but it does have far wider ramifications in the University sector and beyond.

I don’t usually link to stories in the Daily Mail, but you can find the item here. The report relates to a libel action taken by Professor Mike Bode of Liverpool John Moores University against Professor Carole Mundell, a former employee of that institution who is now Head of the Astrophysics group at the University of Bath.  Carole Mundell is a highly regarded extragalactic observational astronomer who works primarily on gamma-ray bursters and their implications for cosmology.

The case revolves around allegations of sexual harassment (and, according to the Daily Mail, sexual assault) made against another former employee of Liverpool John Moores, Dr Chris Simpson, by a female student, and the allegation by Professor Mundell that Professor Bode wrote a misleading reference on behalf of Dr Simpson that omitted mention of the pending allegations and allowed him to move to a post in South Africa before the investigations into them could be concluded. Professsor Bode claimed that this allegation was defamatory and sued Professor Mundell for libel and slander.

The Daily Mail story is not very illuminating as to the substance of the litigation but a full account of the case of Bode versus Mundell can be found here. In fact the case did not go to a full trial hearing, but summarily dismissed before getting that far on the grounds that it would certainly fail; you can find more information about the judgment at the above link.

I had no idea any of this was going on until this morning. The story left me shocked, angry and dismayed but also full of admiration for Carole Mundell’s courage and determination in fighting this case. I think I’ll refrain from commenting further on the conduct of Mike Bode and Chris Simpson, or indeed that of Liverpool John Moores University, except to say that I hope this affair does not end with this failed action and that wider lessons can be learned from what happened in this case. I suspect that Liverpool John Moores is going to have some seriously bad publicity about this, but of greater concern to the wider community is the apparent failure of process in dealing with the allegations about Chris Simpson.

Coincidentally, yesterday saw the publication of a report by the Universities UK Task Force examining violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students.  The document includes a number of rather harrowing case studies that make for difficult reading, but it’s an important document. A new set of guidelines has been issued relating to how to handle allegations that involve behaviour that may be criminal (such as sexual assault).  I urge anyone working in the HE sector (or pretty much anywhere else for that matter) to read the recommendations and to act on them.

I have no idea whether sexual harassment is an increasing problem on campus or what we are seeing is increased reporting, but it is clear that this is a serious problem in the UK’s universities. On paper, the policies and procedures universities already have in place for should be able to deal with many of the issues raised in the Task Force report, but there seems to me to be an individual and perhaps even institutional reluctance to follow these procedures properly. The fear of reputational damage seems to be standing in the way of the genuine cultural change that we need.

Bode versus Mundell may well prove to be a landmark case that makes the astronomy community come to terms with the sexual harassment going on in its midst. As much I’d like to be proved wrong, however, I don’t think it is likely to be the last scandal that will come to light. Carole Mundell’s courage may well lead to more people coming forward, and perhaps changes in practice will mean they are pursued more vigorously. Cultural transformation may prove to be a painful process, but it will prove to have been worth it.





Mahler: Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”)

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2016 by telescoper

Last night I was at St David’s Hall in Cardiff yet again, this time for a piece that I’ve never heard in a live performance: Symphony No.2 (“Resurrection”) by Gustav Mahler. This is a colossal work, in five movements, that lasts about 90 minutes. The performance involved not only a huge orchestra, numbering about a hundred musicians, but also two solo vocalists and a sizeable choir (although the choir does not make its entrance until the start of the long final movement, about an hour into the piece). In my seat before the concert I was particularly struck by the size of the brass section of the orchestra, but it turned out to be even larger than it looked as there were three trumpets and three French horns hidden offstage in the wings for most of the performance – they joined the rest of the orchestra onstage for the finale.

The musicians involved last night were the Orchestra and Chorus of Welsh National Opera, and the Welsh National Opera Community Choir, conducted by Tomáš Hanus who is the new music director of Welsh National Opera; this was his St David’s Hall debut. Soloists were soprano Rebecca Evans (who was born in Pontrhydyfen, near Neath, and is a local favourite at St David’s Hall) and mezzosoprano Karen Cargill (making her St David’s debut).

I don’t really have the words to describe what a stunning musical experience this was. I was gripped all the way through, from the relatively sombre but subtly expressive opening movement through the joyously dancing second movement that recalls happier times, the third which is based on a Jewish folk tune and which ends in a shattering climax Mahler described as “a shriek of despair”, the fourth movement is built around a setting of one of the songs from Das Knaben Wunderhorn, sung beautifully by Karen Cargill who has a lovely velvety voice very well suited to this piece, which seems more like a contralto part than a mezzo. The changing moods of the work are underlined by a tonality that shifts from minor to major and back again. All that was wonderfully performed, but it was in the climactic final movement – which lasts almost half an hour and is based on setting of a poem mostly written by Mahler himself, sung by Rebecca Evans, that what was already a very good concert turned into something truly remarkable.

On many occasions I’ve written about Welsh National Opera performances in the opera theatre and in the course of doing so I’ve very often mentioned the superb WNO Chorus. They weren’t called upon until the final movement, but as soon as they started to sing they lifted the concert to another level. At first they sang sitting down, which struck me as a little strange, but later on I realised that they were holding something in reserve for the final moments of the work. As the symphony moved inexorably towards its climax I noticed the offstage brass players coming onto the stage, the choir standing up, and the organist (who had been sitting patiently with nothing to for most of the performance) took his seat. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up in anticipation of a thrilling sound to come. I wasn’t disappointed. The final stages of this piece are sublime, jubilant, shattering, transcendent but, above all, magnificently, exquisitely loud! The WNO Chorus, responding in appropriate fashion to Mahler’s instruction to sing “”mit höchster Kraft” combined with the full force of the Orchestra and the St David’s Hall organ to create an overwhelming wall of radiant sound. Superb.

Mahler himself wrote of the final movement: “The increasing tension, working up to the final climax, is so tremendous that I don’t know myself, now that it is over, how I ever came to write it.” Well, who knows where genius comes from, but Mahler was undoubtedly a genius. People often stay that his compositions are miserable, angst-ridden and depressing. I don’t find that at all. It’s true that this, as well as Mahler’s other great works, takes you on an emotional journey that is at times a difficult one. There are passages that are filled with apprehension or even dread. But without darkness there is no light. The ending of the Resurrection Symphony is all the more triumphant because of what has come before.

The end of the performance was greeted with rapturous applause (and a well-deserved standing ovation). Congratulations to Tomáš Hanus, Karen Cargill, Rebecca Evans and all the musicians who took part in last night’s concert which is one that I’ll remember for a very long time.

P.S. You might be interested to know that St David’s Hall has been ranked in the world’s Top Ten Concert Halls in terms of sound quality. Those of us lucky enough to live in or near Cardiff are blessed to have such a great venue and so many superb great concerts right on our doorstep!

P.P.S. The concert got a five-star review in the Guardian.

Remembering the Aberfan Disaster

Posted in History with tags , on October 20, 2016 by telescoper

Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of a truly appalling tragedy:the disaster at Aberfan which took place on 21st October 1966. A colliery spoil heap in the Welsh village of Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil, underwent a catastrophic collapse caused by a build-up of water, and more than 40,000 cubic metres of debris slid downhill into the village. The classrooms at Pantglas Junior School were immediately inundated; young children and teachers died from impact or suffocation. In all, 144 people lost their lives that day, including 116 children at the school. The collapse occurred at 9.15am. Had the disaster struck a few minutes earlier, the children would not have been in their classrooms, and if it had struck a few hours later, they would have left for the half-term holiday. As it happened, it was a tragedy of unbearable dimensions, that shattered many lives and devastated the community. It was caused largely by negligence on behalf of the National Coal Board

The First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones, has called upon the people of Wales to pause and remember the Aberfan disaster with a minute’s silence at 9.15am tomorrow (i.e. on Friday 21 October). Cardiff University will be observing this silence, and so will I. I hope readers of this blog will pause to reflect at that time too.

Here is a short video featuring the voice of Jeff Edwards, a survivor of the Aberfan disaster, recalling his harrowing experiences of that day in a conversation with Dr Robert Parker of the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences at Cardiff University. Rob’s research looks at landslide processes, landscape evolution, catastrophe modelling and post-disaster assessment.